General Education

Amid Higher Education Crisis, Community Partnerships May Save Colleges — And Benefit Students

Amid Higher Education Crisis, Community Partnerships May Save Colleges — And Benefit Students
Image from
Jane Hatterer profile
Jane Hatterer January 28, 2016

As economic factors threaten enrollment, colleges need to find new ways to stay relevant — and open — for their students and communities.

Article continues here

Higher education is in crisis.

With record-high levels of student debt (due to escalating tuition rates), declining completion rates, and uncertain employment prospects, many Americans are challenging the value proposition of attending college.

Despite research out of Georgetown correlating a bachelor’s degree with an increased earning potential of about 1 million dollars{: target=”_blank” rel=”nofollow” } over a lifetime, many are questioning whether getting the sheepskin is “worth it.” The federal government itself has issued new regulations to ensure that institutions are adequately preparing students for careers without imperiling their financial futures.

For doubters, alternative options abound. With nontraditional post-secondary options — not to mention microcredentialing and other training opportunities outside of degree programs — on the rise, many ROI-minded students are finding the four-year degree not to be the winning proposition it once was.

Unintended Consequences

As the tuition crisis — coupled with the surge in alternative post-secondary options — puts higher education out of reach (and out of mind) for increasing numbers of prospective students, some colleges may be facing extinction. A recent Moody’s report predicts that the closure rate is likely to triple by the 2017 (with an anticipated 15 closures per year), and that the merger rate may more than double (to at least four to six per year). While some find these predictions unnecessarily alarmist, the fact remains that those institutions most likely to be affected are private colleges with relatively small endowments — institutions that typically serve first-generation, low-income student populations. In other words, students who would most benefit from a college education will be less likely to have access to one.

Many of the institutions likely to be affected are already struggling with decreasing enrollments as they endeavor to maintain the benefits of an intimate educational experience — without a sticker shock–eliciting price tag.

To try to mitigate the effects of high tuition on enrollment, many schools are engaging in tuition discounting. According to the 2014 NACUBO Tuition Discounting Study, private colleges discounted tuition for incoming freshmen in 2014 by 48 percent on average; moreover, 89 percent of that cohort availed themselves of some sort of discount. Unfortunately, this practice may be counterproductive. That is, if, to attract students, these tuition-dependent colleges slash their revenues, then their financial situations may worsen, not improve.

Faced with declining state funding; competition from state schools with lower published tuition rates; diminishing completion rates; increasing numbers of nontraditional student populations demanding affordability, access, and flexibility; and federal evaluation measures tied to job placement, these schools have to “prove their worth.” Otherwise, they face the prospect of obsolescence.

Their current and future students are not the only collateral damage, either. College communities — and their economies — stand to suffer.

In challenging the value of a traditional liberal arts education, few consider the critical role that colleges play in their respective towns. These institutions are, after all, the centerpieces of the towns they occupy. They contribute to the intellectual, cultural, and spiritual lives of citizens. They also promote economic development — as major employers, consumers of goods and services (both at the institutional and individual levels), and developers of infrastructure and real estate.

A Path to the Future

There are, however, steps that colleges can take to improve the outlook for themselves, their students, and their communities. Fundamentally, they need to reevaluate the nature and modality of their program delivery and work to create better pathways to employment.

To change their course, colleges can no longer “go it alone.” Rather than, say, engage in tuition discounting, schools should think about ways to generate revenue through strategic partnerships, community-building initiatives, and career pathway programs. Offering in-demand online programs and courses that provide students with flexibility and accessibility may attract more students and diminish their time to degree completion, outcomes that promise, in turn, to generate more revenue sooner and save costs in the long run.

Institutions, after all, will need to ensure that their students are adequately prepared when they arrive, remain engaged when they are not in school, have the means to complete their education, and graduate with the skills necessary to find work.

To achieve this, colleges need to build relationships with high schools and community colleges to create better pathways for completion. They also need to forge ties with community-based organizations that can provide additional support for students — both in and out of school — to ensure they stay on track. They need to establish partnerships with local employers who can contribute subject matter expertise for career preparedness programs and provide students with internships and, ultimately, permanent employment. They need to remain nimble and offer their students alternative modalities (e.g., on-the-job training or online learning opportunities)
of getting educated.

Colleges once again can save their college towns — and themselves — by partnering with businesses, other institutions, nonprofits, and government organizations to remain relevant in the education they provide and the way they provide it.

Case Studies

One example of this type of community-building and partnership-program initiative is Convergence, which was spearheaded by President Devorah Lieberman of University of La Verne, and Deborah Freund, former President of Claremont Graduate University.

This Inland Southern California partnership initiative brought together 30 higher education and health care industry leaders to establish programs that would produce a large and more diversified medical workforce in order to meet the health and economic needs of the region, which has a growing geriatric population and a dearth of health care workers. An unprecedented collaboration of its kind — dedicated to building academic programs and seamless pathways to employment while meeting the community’s needs — Convergence is an example of a partnership model that benefits a college, its students, local industry, and the health and economic well-being of the community. La Verne is also partnering with hospitals and health care centers in research and education initiatives, which also afford faculty and students opportunities to collaborate with health care professionals.

The University of Vermont is another college (though it is public) that has set an example of a promising future course. UVM has launched innovative initiatives that provide students with educational programming and pathways to employment while also facilitating community growth. One such initiative is the Youth Agricultural Individual Development Account Program (YAIDA). This program, offered through the University’s Center for Sustainable Agriculture and supported by the state’s Agency of Agriculture Food and Markets as well as local businesses, provides 14- to 21-year-olds who are engaged or interested in agriculture with farming business management training, financial literacy classes, education workshops, and 2:1 matching dollars for savings toward farming business purchases. The program also offers students on-farm mentorship opportunities, provides them with access to top agricultural experts in the state, and teaches them how to put together a business plan.

This type of program — which connects public- and private-sector interests in the interest of preparing students for careers in the community, all while promoting the local economy — is a wonderful example of the critical role colleges can play in the health and well-being of their towns. It also illustrates how colleges can be catalysts for, rather than victims of, changing higher-education circumstances.

The Power of Partnerships

In this era of globalization, in which communication is instantaneous, markets interconnected (notwithstanding geographic boundaries), and revolutions inspired from thousands of miles away, the importance of strengthening ties in local communities is, nevertheless, greater than ever. Our colleges can (and should!) play a critical role in community-building — not only so that they may survive, but also so that they, their students, and their towns may thrive.

By forging partnerships with industry, government, nonprofits, and other educational institutions, colleges can save themselves. While they’re at it, they’ll also adequately prepare their students for successful next steps. And their careers may, in turn, strengthen communities and change the world.

Wondering how the colleges you’re considering are partnering with their local communities? Check out their profiles on Noodle, and ask them questions about the programs they offer.

Questions or feedback? Write to us at, or leave a comment below.


Related Articles

Categorized as: General EducationGeneralResources